The summer bocce season has begun. On Sunday nights, the courts will ring with my team’s cheer, “U.C., U.C., U.C.” That stands for “unintended consequences,” which refers to the results of our opponents tossing overly ambitious balls. What ends up happening is that they give us a point.

Here in Napa, if the complicated and immensely detailed Measure C wins, there may be all sorts of unintended consequences, ranging from a deluge of lawsuits to an increase in mega-mansions in the hills to broader wildfire risks. Upon reading the complete text – and I urge all voters to do so – I was left confused and not enlightened. Good intentions are important, but we should support referenda only if we fully comprehend them and conclude that they’re sensible.

If St. Helenans find favor with the goals of “C” and they feel they understand its prescriptions, then they should vote “yes.” If not, they should be comfortable voting “no.”

We have a representative democracy and not a direct democracy. We elect officeholders to act for us, especially on complicated policy issues. Voter initiatives should be saved for extraordinary and clear policy choices, and those initiatives should be easily understood.

That may not be the case with Measure C and its oak trees. A weird number – 795 – is the acreage limit on future tree removals. This odd number comes from an arbitrary mathematical computation; how are we to judge its validity and utility? Last week’s debate was an opportunity for the proponents to explain and defend the measure’s provisions, but instead they just talked in generalities. Very frustrating.

For me, most of the arguments for and against “C” have not proven useful as they seem to be based on ideology and not acknowledged facts. That means this is ultimately a political question which could and should be debated and answered by our Board of Supervisors. But this newspaper’s editorial board had it right when it wrote that Napa County “has failed over and over to prioritize the enforcement of its own meticulously crafted regulations.”

In the background of the increasingly nasty and not enlightening debate on “C” is the publication of James Conaway’s final volume of his Napa trilogy, “Napa at Last Light.” His book title more than hints at his views: that the bright glory days of the Napa wine renaissance are over and the clouds of billionaire-bought destruction are darkening.

You have free articles remaining.

Become a Member

Conaway is yearning for a pristine agricultural Eden that existed mostly in popular imaginations. Generational and ownership changes are inevitable and they’re neither automatically good nor bad. In the past decade, Duckhorn has been sold twice, to two private equity firms. If anything, quality has benefited and the flagship Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot is the incumbent #1 wine at Wine Spectator. And Mondavi has prospered under the benign corporate ownership of Constellation.

What drives Conaway’s animus is the presence of a select number of new filthy rich players who, in his view, have dropped into the Valley to ostentatiously build ego-driven winery presences. But these fools and knaves will always be, by definition, small in number. And if their hired hands can’t produce wine worth drinking at inflated prices, then their existence won’t be more than temporary.

Conaway’s third volume reads as if he’s run out of energy; it’s ultimately a disjointed and uneven book. To better understand his views, readers should pick up his Napa novel “Nose” which this column reviewed favorably five years ago. As I wrote then, Conaway’s personal vision of Napa is clearly presented in “Nose.” The villain in the piece, a hyper-rich developer, is attacked for building “little more than underground nexuses of chemicals.” His hero — no surprise — practices biodynamic farming.

What Conaway doesn’t appreciate is that the arc of political opinion is in fact turning away from unhindered growth in Napa. Just recently, the County Planning Commission rejected a planned Mt. Veeder winery that had no vineyards attached. What could be called industrial agriculture divorced from farming was defeated in this instance. In this context, the debate over “C” has already been won by its proponents. Even if it loses, the political pressures on planners and supervisors to control rural development will only increase.

We are still in the sun-drenched daylight of the wine story in Napa. Young and innovative winemakers continue to surface. And (as this column has previously discussed) many of them are women, which is notable in our economy. These are the people who will truly write the next chapter of the Napa saga.

Editor’s Note: Mark G. Epstein moved to St. Helena from the East Coast early this century after a career in international business.

Get News Alerts delivered directly to you.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.